What comedy most inspires you?
Probably original wordsmith-y stuff. Great structure I find inspiring also. Dave Chappelle's first recent special was an example. The one with the thread of "I met O.J. Simpson four times" A truly fantastic hour.
Which comedian most inspires you?
Difficult. I was inspired young by George Carlin, so I'll say him, since I'm now in the realm of aging and trying to stay relevant in the job, something he did so beautifully. He and Richard Pryor were my earliest inspirations.
Which comedian scares the shit out of you because you know you'll never be that good?
In my early days it was Mike MacDonald, who was also an inspiration and continues to be one. But I came to the place where I understood that I can't do comedy like anyone else, nor can anyone else do it as I do it, so how good someone else is, while occasionally intimidating, doesn't make me think "I'll never be that good"
Why and how did you get into comedy?
I trolled around in late high school and early university, trying to find some performing vehicle I felt the most comfortable doing. I found comedy late in my twentieth year, and was astounded by it's power. Growing up in a small town in Canada, aspiring to be a comedian simply wasn't a practical ambition, but then I found myself in Toronto at 20, and there was a comedy club. And I went to see a show. And then another show. And I signed up for Amateur night. And June 30th, 1980, I performed there. I went on fifteenth out of eighteen comedians, on a night when everyone was bombing, and with no knowledge at all of what I was doing, which was an imitation of what I thought a comedian was, I destroyed. Every single thing I said got laughs. I ad-libbed from my prepared set, I felt free, and they went with all of it. I did so well I was invited back the next Monday for the owner to see me, and I was certain I would be instantly promoted to the salivating phrase "Regular nights". After which, the goal would be "Weekends". I went up the second Monday in a prime spot and just ate it. It was the longest five minutes of my life. Not a thing I said got any response at all. And that did it. I was hooked.
What drives you to do what you do?
It's the only thing, other than writing, that I'm any damn good at at all. I am driven by supporting one daughter in college and another out of college but still in need of support. I also want to continue to improve. The profession is a constant challenge to be relevant and original, both of which become more difficult as one ages. I am driven to jump through every hoop in order to get to the stage and perform, since the time of performance is the best time, without exception. Karl Wallenda said, "Life is on the wire. The rest is waiting."
Describe your perfect Tuesday.
Get up around 8. Have my lemon juice and then take coffee into my writing room and work on my novel for three or four hours. Or some poems, or some jokes. Then go hit some golf balls. Come home and play piano for an hour or two, maybe work on a new song. Play some guitar. Watch my team play hockey on TV while making dinner for my wife, and after she goes to bed, put on an old movie I've seen many times and listen to it while I work on my latest needlepoint project. Possibly a long walk thrown in and maybe some sex, though on a Tuesday that's not likely.
Describe your worst transport experience travelling between gigs.
I have a recurring dream where I am heading to a show, plenty of time, and then something happens and I have to improvise to get there. But someone helps me and we still have time, and then something else happens and eventually we're going to be late, and things keep happening and finally I wake up. I never EVER get to the gig. The worst experience? Such things are difficult to cull after thirty-five years on the road, since the majority blur into one interminable travel day. I once was going to a one-nighter in Kingston Ontario, which was roughly two hours drive from Toronto, and there was a blizzard of epic proportion that evening. It took a whole hour just to get to the northern edge of Toronto and the main highway. I was with two other comedians who didn't have their own cars, and we got on the highway, and after perhaps ten kilometers I decided that this gig, this $200 simply wasn't worth my life. I turned back, got off the highway, called the booker and apologised. It remains the only time I ever cancelled something due to weather.
Best sofa you've ever slept on?
1983, the month of June. After a gig in Buffalo connected me with a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy, I got booked to do a month of gigs at comedy clubs in Florida. Tampa, Jacksonville and Sarasota. The Tampa club had a condo with three bedrooms, but when I got there, all three were taken because a young aspiring comedian named Sinbad was staying there as well as the headliner and the middle. I was the opening act. Sinbad was a good guy. He never stopped talking, and supposedly did his act completely off the cuff. Stream-of-consciousness, which I didn't believe then and I don't believe now. The bedrooms were upstairs. In the living room downstairs, was an oldish blue couch. I slept on that couch for the better part of that month, happy as a mouse in a cheese factory. One night a whole bunch of us came back and we partied, with pot and booze and other things in that living room. I fell asleep on my couch at about three a.m. and at that point Sinbad had been talking non stop for three hours. I woke up at five thirty a.m. and by God, he was still talking.
Best piece of advice a comedian ever gave you?
I don't think he meant it as advice, but that first week in Florida, the headliner and I were talking, and I complimented him on his act, and he shook his head and said, "Yeah, thanks, but I'm worried. I don't know what I want to be talking about six months from now." This has stayed with me, and whenever I am stuck in a rut of old stuff, I think of it. "What do I WANT to be talking about." His name was Paul Kelly. A Chicago comedian, who still works. I learned a lot watching him. I should also mention Bob Altman, who was known as Uncle Dirty. He told me two things. One: Get as close to your own bone as you can. The guys who get really deep into themselves will be the successful ones. Two: I never tell anyone they won't make it. Jimmy Walker made it, ANYONE can make it.
Worst piece of advice a critic ever gave you?
A Montreal critic didn't like my tie once. Critics are the audience. Did they laugh? Okay then you can disregard something someone says.
Tell us a joke.
I dated a girl who smoked during sex. Which I didn't mind that much. It was that cold ashtray on my ass.
What's the furthest you've travelled for the least amount of money/open spot?
North Bay to Winnipeg and did a spot at the club the same night. 1170 kilometres. Second would be Edmonton to Fort Nelson B.C. which is over a thousand kilometers. But I was in my twenties then. (No use to talk to me)
Best chicken you've ever tasted?
No idea. But the best burgers were a little place in Sarasota Florida. They had a great video game and I would spend two, three, even four hours there playing it.
On a scale of 1-10 , how hungry are you right now?
You mean, hungry for success? Maybe a four, possibly a five. I want to improve and keep working. Be ready if the opportunity comes. Check out John's podcast The Bad Piano Player here:
Interview first published in 2018